One dead, 15 injured in fresh clashes over India temple dispute

Published January 3, 2019
Indian supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) march during a protest rally over two women entering the Sabarimala Ayyapa temple. — AFP
Indian supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) march during a protest rally over two women entering the Sabarimala Ayyapa temple. — AFP

Clashes erupted between Hindu hardliners and police in the southern state of Kerala for a second day Thursday, after two women defied traditionalists to enter one of India's holiest temples.

Violence across Kerala on Wednesday left one person dead and 15 injured after news spread that the two women, escorted by police and dressed in black, had sneaked into the Sabarimala temple and prayed before dawn.

This was the first time that women of menstruating age — deemed as those aged between 10 and 50 — had set foot in the gold-plated temple, located on a hilltop in a tiger reserve, since India's Supreme Court overturned a ban in September.

Thousands of Hindu devotees, many of them female, had previously succeeded in preventing women from accessing the site in the weeks after the ruling, with some hardliners throwing stones at police and assaulting female journalists.

On Tuesday, tens of thousands of women, in a local government-backed initiative, braved harassment to form a huge human chain called the “Women's Wall” across Kerala to back the demand for access to the temple.

Kerala police said the man who died on Wednesday was part of a demonstration organised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — not part of Kerala's state government — in the town of Pandalam and was hit by stones thrown at protestors.

“His injuries were serious and he died late Wednesday night. At least 15 others were injured in incidents across the state,” police spokesman Pramod Kumar told AFP.

Police on Wednesday had used tear gas, stun grenades and water cannon after demonstrations turned violent and clashes broke out between rival groups, including outside the state parliament in the capital Thiruvananthapuram.

Journalists were also assaulted during the disturbances in Thiruvananthapuram and the nearby city of Kollam.

Kerala remained tense on Thursday, with additional riot police deployed and four stabbed in clashes across the state, media reports said.

Journalists were assaulted in the city of Palakkad during a march organised by the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a hardline Hindu group and ideological mentor of Modi's party.

In the coastal city of Kozhikode police used tear gas to disperse protestors who tried to enforce a shutdown called for by the Sabarimala temple hierarchy.

'Battle zone'

Kerala's Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan accused the BJP and the RSS of trying to turn Sabarimala into a “battle zone”.

“All the police did was provide protection to the two (women), in keeping with the Supreme Court verdict,” Vijayan told reporters.

He said that 79 state buses were damaged in Wednesday's violence.

“Women were targeted, especially those who took part in the Women's Wall...Journalists and their equipment... were assaulted. Even the police were not spared,” Vijayan said.

The restriction on woman at Sabarimala, atop a 3,000-feet (915-metre) hill that takes hours to climb, reflects a belief -- not exclusive to Hinduism — that menstruating women are impure.

September's verdict was the latest progressive ruling from the Supreme Court, with judges also overturning bans on gay sex and adultery last year.

In rare comments regarding the Sabarimala temple on Tuesday, Modi — running for a second term in elections later this year — appeared to support the ban, saying the matter was related to tradition.

“There are some temples which have their own traditions, where men can't go. And men don't go,” Modi told Indian media.

The Supreme Court is to start hearing a legal challenge on its ruling to allow women into the temple from January 22.

Women are still barred from a handful of Hindu temples in India. The entry of women at Sabarimala was taboo for generations and formalised by the Kerala High Court in 1991.

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